When you’re trying to save money, it can be difficult to decide what to make from scratch and what to buy for convenience. Sometimes it’s a time issue, but sometimes the price difference between products isn’t that big. Sometimes the price difference is enormous. Often the big difference is in quality.
If you do plan on doing a lot of baking a stand mixers is an important investment. A stand mixer is well worth the time (and potentially money) that it saves if you can afford it. That’s one of those problems with being genuinely poor– where are you going to get $250 or $350 to buy a high quality stand mixer so you can multi-task while making bread? Without a mixer, where are you going to find the time to bake from scratch on a regular basis?
Some people balk at the cost of yeast when baking bread, but really you only need to buy it once. If you’re going to be baking bread regularly you can keep a starter in your fridge and use that in place of store-bought yeast. If you’re not going to be baking all the time, you can still save on yeast using the “old dough” method, which uses old dough to provide yeast for new dough, and the dough can be frozen for quite some time before reuse. Once you’re down to the price of flour, sugar, and oil, homemade bread is a delicious but inexpensive carb.
Making your own mix when you have time might be an option. Pancakes are super cheap from scratch. Yes, it’s convenient to buy a mix and just add liquid, but if you’re really trying to save money, you can mix up a big batch of mix yourself and use it as you need it. Similarly, you can make up extra waffles or pancakes for your own toaster-waffles (or microwave pancakes) on weekday mornings.
Cakes, on the other hand, are often expensive homemade than store-bought or from a mix because you start using butter, and even with on-sale butter ($2/lb at the holidays), it can start to add up, especially if you want to add things like chocolate or candied fruit. Of course, the same quality cake will cost tens of dollars from a real bakery. Supermarket cakes tend to be chiffon (using oil) or shortening. They’re not as good, but may be less expensive than you making your own (especially when reduced for quick sale after an event). If you’re really into chiffon cakes, it may be less expensive to make your own mix than to make from a mix, but you’ll have to run the numbers yourself. Personally I don’t think store-bought cakes or mixes are worth it– if I’m going to eat something bad for me it had better taste really good. (Store-bought brownies and mixes, otoh, can be pretty tasty.)
Similarly, if you have expensive tastes, then homemade may be worth it because you use higher quality and fresher ingredients than the store. Granola isn’t peanuts to make depending on what you put in it (the oats are cheap, but nuts can get expensive), but it is so pricy to buy that making it turns out to be a pretty good deal. Freshly made granola also tastes ambrosial.
The true benefit to making your own baked goods is that you control what the ingredients are. There’s a lot of crap in a lot of processed foods, even in the pre-made mixes. There are breads that are cheaper than flour, but I can’t bring myself to eat them. We still have some wonderbread in our freezer from when FIL was here and he wanted to make french toast with bread (but not whole wheat bread). (MIL shouldn’t eat it because of her diabetes.)
But often times store-bought is the way to go. If you can find a sandwich bread you like, store-bought lasts longer and comes perfectly sliced. Sometimes you only want one cookie and not an entire batch (and what’s the point in going through the effort of making just one cookie? and you mean to freeze the dough or the cookies for later but…). The kind of pastry dough you use to make croissants is a multi-hour if not multi-day affair of folding and pounding if you make it from scratch (though buying croissants made without butter is completely not worth it no matter how inexpensive).
Sometimes you don’t have time and it’s worth more to buy the convenience food so you can earn more money, even when we’re not talking about croissants. However, baking is a good way to spend time with kids– they can help at a pretty early age. And, once they’re old enough to do it on your own, the time calculus changes. Obviously they need to make more cookies.
Sometimes there are sales that make store-bought baked goods ridiculously inexpensive. Check out the day-old bin, and check for holiday-themed mixes and baked items after a holiday for real deals.
When do you bake, when do you buy? When do you use a mix?
This week’s menu:
Fried rice. This uses the leftover rice from last week’s stirfry, but if it doesn’t the entire meal costs <$3.
Fried kielbasa with onions and potatoes. If you want to save money and aren’t worried about your gylcemic load, you can buy a big bag of potatoes. The trick is that you have to eat them before they go bad. Because of my PCOS we won’t be doing that– potatoes are a special treat that I need to balance with meat and/or vinegar to slow digestion so I don’t get blood sugar spikes. But man I do love me some potatoes. Kielbasa ~$3 Onion ~$1. Potatoes ~$1
Homemade pizza. Dough, sauce, cheese. Bread dough<$1, sauce <$2 (we use canned pizza sauce, but if you want to go cheaper you can just get a small tin of tomato sauce and add salt and any spices you have on hand), cheese… can vary depending on what kind you use and how much you use of it, but let’s go <$2. DH insisted on more pepperoni (<$2) and some mushrooms (<$1). Base meal is <$5, more fancy versions will depend on toppings. One recipe worth tends to have a lot of leftovers.
Black Bean Soup. Black beans, onions, carrots. This costs about the same as split pea soup from last time, but I really want to have it with sour cream, so add a bit more. And we’ve got cilantro in our garden that’s thriving despite (or because of) the recent cold snaps.
Spaghetti. Can of sauce, noodles. ~$4. ($3 if you make the sauce from canned tomatoes and aren’t picky about spices) If you add meat, another $2-$6.
Wraps. Wraps are like sandwiches, but with (flour) tortillas instead of bread. You can put anything in them from sandwich fillings to leftover rice, bean, or noodle dishes. They’re good on-the-go versions of a meal. We are going to do fresh spring rolls instead because we still have rice wrappers from last time and DC2 shouldn’t have flour tortillas. The price on this can vary tremendously depending on what you put inside the cover. We’ll be doing noodles, lettuce, cilantro, mint (also thriving), and shrimp (DH wanted seafood and shrimp are in season), so not that cheap. A less expensive spring roll option would use chicken or maybe tofu depending on tofu prices.
Sweet and sour red cabbage. We might do this with the kielbasa instead of potatoes and onions, I dunno. <$1 for the cabbage (and there’s usually leftover).